Wednesday, 24 October 2012

When knowledge walks. Tactical Knowledge Retention in KM

You never forget a good teacher… The lovely Mrs Lowe managed to communicate the importance of good dental hygiene, where dentists and countless ad campaigns had failed. Her humble props of a jar, an egg and a litre of cola were enough to convince us kids not to wait for decay and use Colgate today.

As a manager I’d have missed her contribution to the school. As a knowledge manager, it would be the regret at losing her expertise, assumptions, values and insight that would inevitably occur when Mrs Lowe finished her class for the last time. You see this all the time of course – workers, good workers like Mrs Lowe, with years of experience leaving an organisation in planned or unplanned ways with little or no thought about how this knowledge loss could be mitigated.

KM practitioners could be thinking communities of practice and mentoring programmes, but what if these don’t exist formally or even informally in your organisation? They’re also not much use if that person is leaving in days and weeks and not months and years.

When bossman asked me to look into creating a procedure for tactical knowledge retention, I was only too happy to help. Perhaps the start and tail ends of an employees lifecycle are the most crucial periods, both in terms of how they are supported and the steps taken to mitigate critical knowledge loss. I’ll attempt to provide an overview of the exit process.
Knowledge Retention?

Related terms include, ‘Knowledge Elicitation’ and ‘Knowledge Harvesting’, although the latter phrase was something that brought genuine fear into the eyes of the first person who volunteered to take part in one. After reassuring them that no brains would be sucked out at any point in the sessions, I decided to communicate it as the less racy ‘Knowledge Retention’ from then on.

Knowledge retention is a response to the crucial knowledge lost when key personnel leave an organisation. It would still be unrealistic to expect that the entire knowledge built up during months and years of a worker’s tenure can be captured in sessions that may amount to hours. Knowledge retention is therefore a damage limitation exercise at best, yet still infinitely better than asking people to volunteer their expertise by writing down what they know, relying only on gathering documents and records they may have created or worse still doing absolutely nothing.

Even with the best will in the world, many experts ‘don’t know what they know’. Therefore, an effective way of capturing and transferring meaningful knowledge is through structured interviewing to help systematically surface know-how and ‘deep-dive’ on content that an individual or team wouldn’t have considered capturing on their own.

My first foray into knowledge retention was to specifically capture and transfer some crucial learning between a subject matter expert who was leaving and a new starter who would be in a position to take some of the previous incumbents responsibilities.

Deciding When

Before embarking on this exercise it makes sense for all involved to understand to what extent their participation should be. Knoco refer to this as ‘High Grading’ the knowledge risk. For example, is the work continuing? Does anyone else have the knowledge? Or, has the knowledge been fully documented previously? Depending on the response, possible solutions could be to simply creating optional self-help documentation. If however they’re identified as the only subject matter expert with key operational knowledge, as was the case of the first person who participated in this session with me, then more needs to be done. In a single point failure situation like this, a structured knowledge retention exercise was the only option.


Prior to a session it seems logical to define certain roles and responsibilities. Katrina Pugh describes these very effectively as part of her ‘Knowledge Jam’ process. For example, a sponsor (in my case my boss) would act to fund and select knowledge retention subjects and advocates in favour of knowledge retention event.

The ‘Knowledge Originator’ would be the subject matter or domain expert with know-how potentially useful to others.

A ‘Knowledge Seeker’ would be the person in search of the knowledge. They should also take part in the knowledge retention process if they are available while the knowledge originator is. Here they can play a role in shaping the direction of the knowledge captured to by requesting any specific information that would help them.

I took the role of facilitator to explain, coordinate and structure the knowledge retention exercise, as well as capture the outputs of the event between the originator and seeker. While it would depend on resources, a dedicated scribe could also work alongside the facilitator and knowledge seeker to help augment any dialogue and capture other such that was missed, noting down who said what. 

The Process

The knowledge seekers need a structured method by which to share their knowledge, in other words something to help tell them tell their story. Indeed storytelling methods themselves could be incorporated into any sessions. If, like me, you subscribe to the notion that experts ‘don’t know what they know’, a key purpose of the knowledge retention exercise should be to help surface this knowledge from them. A ‘pre-interview’ session to determine key points would help here. Routine admin type stuff can be taken out of the way and a request for fundamental reference documents, contacts and the structure of their working year taken.

Providing a context to help the knowledge originator tell their story is a useful starting point in the main interview session. An existing methodology or strategy will act as a logical basis to structure questions on. The first participant I undertook this with was a trading professional that was expected to adhere to a company mandated sourcing methodology. The various stages of this methodology were used as a framework by which questions could be formulated and structured conversation encouraged.

More generic questions could include, “what product/process/strategy do we have today?” Or, “how did the politics of your networks influence how you went about these?
During the pre-interview stage it helps to ask the originator to describe in a couple of word’s what they feel the crux of their job is about. With the first participant, this was essentially how they managed the customer and how they made the saving. Both these concerns were then structured into the main interview session questioning.

As a teacher in a previous life, my guru used to tell me that intelligence comes from within and our role was less as tutors and more to facilitate the elicitation of responses from students. A learning background is an advantage in any facilitated sessions, however probing questions to press for specifics could include:

What would you do if?
- What usually happens?
- What are the things to watch out for?
How could this be made easier to understand?
Why do you do that?
Where do you go for further details?
Describe a situation where it didn't go to plan?    
What are the critical success factors to achieving success in that part of your job?

A sequence of asking questions - exploring those answers, summarising the feedback and developing new questions - to help produce recommendations for the next person doing similar work should be the method of operation here.

The session doesn't need to be limited to capturing only text either. During one session a knowledge originator became quite excited about explaining the management structure of a customer and resorted to using the whiteboard present in the room. It’s fine to go with the flow within reason and I took a quick snap afterwards that was included and annotated in the final report.

Recording any proceedings was something that I personally don’t opt to do, figuring that it could inhibit the flow of conversation and make both the knowledge originator and seeker feel more self-conscious. However, discrete audio clips embedded into session documents can work well as a way of enriching the final explicit knowledge created.

At the end of the sessions, it also makes sense to distribute any reports with both the knowledge originator and the seeker to verify the facts and to let them add anything that may have been missed.

Demonstrating Value

Knowledge seekers, Knowledge originators and perhaps most importantly my boss could see clear benefits of performing this activity. If you are faced with a particularly incredulous financial director, work by Dr Hoffman from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition laboratories could strengthen the idea of knowledge retention becoming a strategic imperative in your organisation.

-       Consider five people in your organisation who have knowledge that is critical and remains undocumented.

-       For these people think of five critical job functions they perform

-       For each of these functions, estimate the frequency with which it has been performed and the approximate time it takes for the expert to accomplish primary goals.

-       From here the total operational costs of achieving all these critical functions can be calculated.

-       For each of the functions, list 5 consequences to the organisation if the function was lost

-       From this estimate the following questions can be answered “When would the revenue stream dry up if the organisation lost that expertise?”

-       For each of experts, how many years of salary and training costs did it take the organisation to grow the expertise in the first instance?

-       Based on this figure, the total cost of regenerating that expertise over 10 years can be calculated.

Knowledge Empathy

If the process of Knowledge Retention doesn't sound too difficult, then it isn't meant to. Regardless of how much the process is refined or how well a facilitator practices the art of eliciting answers though the success of the entire process balances on the emotions of the knowledge originator and to a lesser extent the knowledge seeker involved.

As part of the process you can talk about moving proceedings offsite and promoting a safe environment for everyone to contribute. I was fortunate enough to see successes with knowledge retention candidates who although leaving their respective organisations, were grateful for the experience and had simply found opportunities that appealed to them more. As a result they contributed wholeheartedly and made excellent participants. 
Problems arise when an organisation talks redundancy and expects those same people to disclose their knowledge with enthusiasm and full cooperation before they walk out of the door. It goes without saying that overworked, undervalued and generally unhappy workers do not make good knowledge retention candidates.

In the current economic climate redundancies are becoming unavoidable for all sectors. It’s still in management’s and HR’s gift to manage the process with as much empathy as possible to make people feel a part of the organisation right up to their last day. It will pay dividends and not just from a knowledge transfer perspective.

So how would a knowledge manager win hearts and minds in situations like this? The first candidate who took part mentioned how the sessions helped him to capture, categorise and transfer the tacit knowledge he had been building up, helping his exit and giving him a sense of legacy.

Offering a sense of legacy may be the only real benefit this exercise could offer to some people. The organisation will of course profit from this knowledge. Personally speaking (and biased as I will be), there is no bigger compliment than having your knowledge become an organisations knowledge, embedded to change the way of working for the betterment of everyone and successive employees and a much greater enticer than any enhanced redundancy package.

Of course, had I had this know-how as an urchin of a kid, I would have asked Mrs Lowe to explain her tooth decay exercise for far more commercial reasons. We could have marketed it to revolutionize the dental industry and made a fortune (or at least enough to let me buy that Scaletrix set that I always wanted). If only I knew then what I know now.


  1. Nice post, thanks. I like the financial calculation idea

  2. Hi Nick, some quite advanced work from Dr Hoffman in that area. Thanks for reading

  3. Wonderful unpicking of knowledge sharing and I completely agree that stories aid retention, with or without an egg!

  4. Thank you Lisa. Following your work on stories for organisational benefit with interest too!